This is a guest post by Mary J. Johnson, an educational consultant to the Library of Congress.
May is Physical Fitness Month. Based on America’s popular culture obsession with physical fitness, one might be tempted to label fitness as a modern phenomenon. Primary sources hardly come to mind, but in fact, students can discover a rich and extensive history of physical fitness through the collections of the Library of Congress.
As early as the 1820s, schools began to introduce gymnastics and hygiene training into the curriculum, but physical education did not become a formal requirement until after the Civil War. This 1899 photograph of high school girls exercising with “a wall-mounted device using ropes and pulleys” does not look much different from gym equipment today, although fitness fashion has changed dramatically.
Conscription data released during World War I and II identified up to half of all military draftees physically unfit for combat. Schools heard the message. This 1942 photograph shows “Boys in the ‘commando’ course, part of the physical education program, learning the fireman’s ‘carry,’ or the correct method of carrying a wounded comrade.” You can find a gallery of similar images here.
- Work as a whole class to analyze the exercise equipment visible in the 1899 photograph of high school girls exercising and then to compare it with exercise equipment the students are familiar with or have used. How is the equipment today different from the equipment in the photographs? Why has it changed?
- Encourage your students to interview their parents or grandparents about their physical education experiences and to locate images as illustrations for those stories. What did they wear? What were their favorite activities? Why?
What else can be discovered by exploring the history of physical education in the U.S.?